The Real Obama Doctrine Exposed

April 28, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Americas Tags: Barack ObamaObama DoctrineU.S. Foreign Policy

The Real Obama Doctrine Exposed

At the end of the day, Obama's highest priorities are domestic, and this has had a powerful impact on his foreign-policy choices.

What's changed during Obama's second term is that his foreign policy approach is no longer popular—and this is now creating domestic political problems for him and for his party. Indeed the president's foreign policy approval ratings today hover around 38 percent or 39 percent, which is roughly where they've been stuck for a year and a half. What the median American voter once viewed as a special strength of Obama's, they now view as a special weakness. Something has shifted with regard to popular perceptions of U.S. foreign policy, apart from the usual second-term blues so common to administrations.

In one case after another—Syria, Ukraine, Iraq—residential responses that the White House trumpeted as calm restraint have only come across as half-hearted, indecisive, and confused. In a sense Obama's rather disengaged approach toward numerous international dangers has now come back to haunt him. We saw this quite vividly during the U.S. congressional midterm elections last fall, where many Republicans ran and won on a platform calling for a stronger response to terrorism, ISIS, and other security challenges. Many liberal Democrats and even the GOP's own non-interventionists seem to be in denial on this point, preferring instead to debate the 2003 Iraq war decision for the remainder of this century. But the rise of ISIS, in particular, has triggered a genuine and justifiable popular revulsion within the United States, and people are ready to support a significantly more robust American response against this terrible enemy once called upon to do so.

If Obama is both an unpopular president and specifically an unpopular foreign policy president come 2016, this will inevitably pose a serious problem for the Democratic Party's next presidential nominee, whatever position they try to take on the issues. It is entirely possible that a Republican candidate with a clear and compelling foreign policy message could regain the traditional GOP presidential advantage on international affairs. To be sure, any such candidate must reassure the public that they will be careful as well as decisive when it comes to questions of military intervention, but this challenge is not so overpowering as commentators sometimes suggest. Indeed Republicans have now regained a clear edge on issues of national security, according to multiple polls from the last eighteen months. If the GOP had really lost its traditional advantage on foreign policy issues for all time due to previous frustrations in Iraq, then these polling results would have been impossible. In any case, the only way to win the argument for an internationally serious and robust security strategy is to make it.

The current mood of the American public remains a little downbeat regarding the U.S. global role. Still, the pattern in American history is that these downswings in mood never last forever. Events are occurring abroad to trigger renewed concern within the United States over international security challenges. Ironically, the Obama doctrine leaves some such challenges more likely, insofar as it invites aggressive behavior from hostile actors overseas. In the end, the United States always bounces back from these periods of disengagement, and counterpunches. The only real question is when.

Colin Dueck is an Associate Professor in the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. Portions of this article are drawn from his new book, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza